Excelsior College Online Writing Lab (OWL) Boosts Skills and Grades, Study Finds

A photo of the Excelsior College Online Writing Lab (Excelsior College OWL)

Kresge-funded innovation at Excelsior College is now open to the public.

College students’ writing skills significantly improved through use of Excelsior College’s new Online Writing Lab (OWL), a nationwide pilot study shows.

Students at Excelsior and five partner colleges in the study showed the equivalent of a half grade increase in the final grade through use of the online writing lab. The study was conducted by the Evaluation Consortium at the State University of New York at Albany.

Funded by The Kresge Foundation, the OWL is a highly interactive, media-rich website designed to help freshmen or adult learners returning to school make the transition to college-level writing.

“The Excelsior College Online Writing Lab stands apart from its peers both in scope and breadth,” said Dr. Crystal Sands, who directs the project at Excelsior. “The OWL is built to guide users through the core components of college-level writing, to learn new skills or polish old ones, in a fun, supportive and engaging environment. The results of our pilot study illustrate the success that the OWL can have in the classroom.”

“The OWL is a great tool for students and others looking for advice on how to improve their writing skills,” says Bill Moses, managing director of Kresge’s Education Program “We hope the OWL will be a trusted and helpful resource for students not just while they are in school, but when they are working, too,” Moses says. The Kresge Foundation works to expand opportunity for low-income people in America’s cities. Its Education Program promotes post-secondary access and success for low-income, first-generation and underrepresented students.

The Kresge Foundation Education Program promotes post-secondary access and success for low-income, first-generation and underrepresented students.

The OWL is now open for use by high schools, colleges, other institutions and the general public. There is no charge.

The pilot study was conducted during the fall semester 2013 and involved 152 students from six institutions of higher education: Excelsior, Valencia College, Howard Community College, Broome Community College, Union County College and San Diego Mesa College.

Preliminary findings indicated that students in the courses offering the OWL as a writing resource scored on average 5.5 points higher on their class assignments –  on a scale of 100 – than students in the control group. (Update: Further analyses indicates students using the OWL scored 6.5 points higher than the control group.) That’s the equivalent of a half letter-grade improvement at the end of a course. The study involved treatment and control sections of Basic Writing, Accelerated, ESL Writing and traditional Freshman Composition courses. The treatment groups had the OWL integrated into the curriculum and were required to use the OWL as support on all written assignments.

Additionally, analyses show improvement when comparing student writing from the beginning of the semester to the end of the semester. Students also show significant improvement in content and purpose for writing, and content development categories. The greatest improvement is in the areas of genre and disciplinary conventions, control of syntax and mechanics, and sources and evidence.

Further analyses are being conducted to assess such questions as the influence of student learning styles on the effectiveness of the OWL, student perceptions of the OWL and demographic characteristics of the student participants.


The OWL has already attracted more than 28,000 visitors and 1.2 million page views. It has been incorporated into a number of high school curriculums and is being used on more than 20 college and university campuses, including Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Walden University, Rochester Institute of Technology, Purdue University and Thunderbird School of Global Management.

Lisa Smart, an instructor at North Central Texas College said she was amazed at the usefulness of the OWL. “Instead of telling my students to write academically, I tell them we are going to find their academic voice,” she said. “Not only has it inspired me, but it has lit a fire in them as well.”

The OWL is accessible 24/7 from desktop, tablet, and mobile devices.

The main sections of the OWL include: Writing Process, Locating Information & Writing with Sources, Grammar Essentials, Essay Zone, Avoiding Plagiarism and Digital Writing. A seventh section, ESL-Writing Online Workshop (WOW), provides ESL students with step-by-step support through the writing process.
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While the OWL was built for higher education instruction, the scaffolded-nature of the lessons – with each step through an area building on the one that preceded it – allows for easy integration into any educational curriculum, including at the high school-level or Common Core.

Initial planning for Excelsior College OWL began in spring 2007. An assessment of English Composition at Excelsior College disclosed that approximately 15 percent of its students, primarily working adults, either failed the course or failed to complete the course on time – a struggle not unique to Excelsior. National research indicates that writing continues to be a significant challenge for many college students and that better support is needed for those entering college or transitioning to different disciplines.

Watch Crystal Sands discuss the Excelsior College OWL at Sloan-C

“Our survey research found existing online writing centers were primarily text-based and resembled a print-based lab transferred to an online environment,” said Dr. Sands. “We chose to build a space with clear instruction, interactivity and easy navigation. It’s not just about providing access to content, but creating authentic learning activities.”

Learning activities within the Excelsior OWL include Paper Capers, a third-person educational video game that teaches the writing process. Developed by 1st Playable Productions, the game allows students to play as owners of a writing company who must help their employees follow a good writing process.

“The game is an excellent tool for beginners,” said Michael Smith, a pilot study participant from Valencia College. “It is a lot of fun and very informal.”

Excelsior has also created an OWL Community on Facebook for instructors and writing professionals to share best practices and discuss pedagogy and other industry issues of importance.

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